Friday, 6 August 2010

The first successful Shakespeare adaptation - 1908 - The Tempest - Percy Stow

Is the concept of a silent Shakespeare film an oxymoron? Absolutely not, I would argue. Shakespeare’s language is a crucial ingredient of his dramatic works, but far too often in recent cinematic adaptations it has been over-emphasised. There is a visceral visual element to many of the key works of Shakespeare that film can capture in a way that the theatre cannot. For example, my favourite cinematic Shakespeare moment involves no language at all: it is when Macbeth has been slain by a sheaf of arrows that pin him against a door in Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood (I will have a lot more to say about this scene when we eventually get round to looking at the film).

Percy Stowe’s The Tempest is an extremely brave adaptation of its source material. With the film running at around twelve minutes, Stowe had very little scope to convey the plot of the play. However, limitation often breeds innovation, and the limited running time of the film allowed Stowe to concentrate on the key visual moments of the play.

Yet unlike with his earlier 1903 collaborative effort Alice in Wonderland, which Film: Ab Initio described as ‘enjoyable, charming but lightweight’, The Tempest is a more significant and substantial film. Whereas Alice in Wonderland picked a selection of moments from Carol’s work that felt episodic, with The Tempest, Stowe skilfully constructs a narrative thread that allows the film to have a more cohesive feel to it.

This is partially to do with Stowe’s development as a film maker, but Stowe also owes a significant debt to the rapid speed with which film was developing as a medium. Since 1903, film had witnessed its first superstar (Max Linder), ventured into the world of animation and tackled key historical events in films such as La Presa Di Roma and Stenka Razin.

Although the film leaves out some of the play’s major plotlines, the film is complete enough in itself to convey the narrative threads it does follow to someone who had not read the play (although there is no denying that a viewing of the film, as with any Shakespeare film, is enriched if one has read the play beforehand).

The film’s major success is its portrayal of Ariel. When Ferdinand chases Ariel in the film and she disappears using a simple Mélièsian trick, film has another one of its pivotal moments. This moment crystallises the difference between theatre and film; to put it simply, film can do things that theatre cannot. Although this is not the first time such a moment occurs in film history, given that it happens during the adaptation of a Shakespeare play, it explicitly confirms that film is developing in a separate direction to theatre. And this point extends beyond technical differences; it allows film to accentuate different emotional currents through such visual trickery. Ariel’s ‘disappearances’ in this scene (see image below) highlights the playful nature of Ariel, and more importantly, Ferdinand.

I have seen an awful production of The Tempest where Ferdinand was played in a dry, one-dimensional manner; this film gives the character more colour and depth in twelve minutes than that production managed to do so in two and a half hours!

From the perspective of film history, Ariel is also interesting because she is a Méliès visual trick that is removed from the confines of his studio and transposed onto a naturalistic setting. The most impressive Mélièsian trickery, however, is saved for when Prospero shipwrecks the King of Naples’ ship. I am surprised that the image is not more iconic (see image below).

The bfi’s screenonline is in agreement as to the quality of the film, though it also notes that the film’s attempts to uncover the cinematic qualities of Shakespeare’s text were not followed:
Comfortably the most visually imaginative and cinematically adventurous silent British Shakespeare film, Percy Stow's The Tempest (1908) takes a different approach from that of Dickson's 1899 film of King John, in that it attempts a complete précis of the entire play staged specifically for the cameras...
Curiously, though, no-one seems to have built on its lead, as all surviving silent Shakespeare films have tended to be as stagebound as those made by Stow's predecessors - Frank Benson's Richard III (1911) being typical.

Film: Ab Initio will carefully monitor the progress of adaptations of Shakespeare’s works; with Stow’s The Tempest, film has made a promising start.

Note: Unfortunately, the film for The Tempest cannot be found online, it can only be found on the bfi’s DVD Silent Shakespeare. It is well worth the purchase, and contains several other Shakespeare films that this blog will cover.  


  1. I recently watched this while renting the Silent Shakespeare DVD, and must admit I found it very hard to watch or take in because of the flickering quality of the print - also, although I have read and studied 'The Tempest' in the past I realised that I didn't really remember it well enough. Catching up with your review makes me realise that I should really give it another try as I obviously missed a lot! I will look forward to reading more of your Shakespeare postings.

  2. The Tempest - Percy Stow - 1908 online: